“Of bodies changed to other forms I tell.” So begins one of the most moving and influential literary works in Western culture. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, dating from 8 CE, has provided rich source material for visual artists and writers for over two millennia. Since 1984, self-taught artist Wally Reinhardt (born 1935) has focused solely on interpreting the epic poem’s various tales in his witty and whimsical series titled Pages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He began working on Pages following his return to New York from an extended stay in Rome with his late partner, the painter Robert Keyser. While in Italy, he frequently encountered Ovidian-inspired artworks by Renaissance and Baroque artists ranging from Sandro Botticelli and Antonio del Pollaiuolo to Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Originally intending to illustrate all 15 books of Ovid’s masterwork, Reinhardt instead repeated some of his favorite stories, retelling them from his own perspective and summarizing the narratives in cheeky captions. He imposed strict formal guidelines: All of the Pages created between 1984 and 1995 were made with Prismacolor pencils and gouache on single sheets of Arches paper, whereas the Pages from the late 1990s through today feature diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs rendered primarily in watercolor with selected details highlighted in gold and silver gouache. Early on, Reinhardt embellished his images with elaborate decorative borders that call to mind ancient Roman frescoes and mosaics—or do they allude to New York City’s subway tiles, or both? His later Pages take the form of gridded, window frame–like compositions that—inspired by comic strips and akin to Cubism—play on the tension between surface and depth, “granting the gods,” in Reinhardt’s words, “a modern pictorial space for their endeavors.”
Indeed, in linking his work with Ovid’s, Reinhardt celebrates the spirit of our time—for, as Matthew S. Santirocco observes: “Classical myths resonate on many levels, and the representation of a cosmos in perpetual flux and of individual identity as essentially unstable seems strikingly modern.” In 2017, the artist generously donated his Pages to the New York University Art Collection. Installed in roughly the same order in which Ovid recounted his tales, the selections on view here invite us to reconsider artmaking itself as a form of metamorphosis.